An Elegant Irony

The crazy thing about street cred is that as soon as you go to cash it in, you’re stripped of it by the very people who gave it to you. It’s like some sort of scummy casino.

It seems that Banksy is the latest to add his name to the list of well-known street artists that have been harshly criticized for “selling out” by the skateboarding masses. Apparently, while Banksy was busy writing the preface for his coffee table book and story-boarding the recent opener for The Simpsons, the real artists were hanging a gallery show ankle deep in New York City’s collective fecal matter. Tough crowd.

Just goes to show that credibility is hard to earn and all too easy to lose. At the same time, it does provide a sort of cultural system of checks and balances. Brands that manage to earn the wary trust of a counter-cultural crowd — especially one who’s ideology is inherently anti-consumerism — must tread particularly lightly. The oft-cited Patagonia comes to mind as a company that seems to walk the talk. They stand by their guns, even when they’re shooting holes in their own business model. The eco-clothiers have made a habit of cultivating deep loyalties with their core consumer base through efforts like 1% For The Planet and The Footprint Chronicles, through which they candidly admit that they’re part of the problem. That’s some serious street trail cred: Humility before glory.

Organizations that sign up for this voyage into truly authentic branding have got to take the long view. It would be so much quicker to work a gimmick or endorsement and go huge overnight, but as soon as their cover is blown, so is their credibility. Forever. The Milli Vanilli of marketing, so to speak. Menswear mogul Giorgio Armani said,

“I’ve tried to find a new elegance. It’s not easy, because people want to be shocked. They want explosive fashion. But explosions don’t last, they disappear immediately and leave nothing but ashes.”

The same is true in advertising. Companies should strive to be surprising in their openness and exceptional in their consistency. The road to sustained credibility is to respect your customer, accept slower growth and constantly check your product (and your promotion) against what you claim to stand for.

On the other hand, you’ve got to be willing to ignore the inevitable haters. Viva Banksy.

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