Counter-culture Marketing

There’s always a market for going against the tide. Look no further than the surprising political candidacy of Ron Paul, maverick Republican/Libertarian running for U.S. President.


(Disclaimer: this is not a political post per se, but a marketing post that touches on a political phenomenon. For my part, I actually haven’t decided who I’d vote for in the upcoming presidential election).

Ron Paul’s campaign is a great illustration of WOM (Word-of-Mouth) marketing. He doesn’t seem to have much of a professional staff orchestrating things. What has happened is that he has bunches of rabid fans who self-organize to raise money, campaign actively, and even create and fly a blimp! How many of us would like to develop a customer base that would go to such extremes!

This candidacy is a social-media fueled phenomenon, and it works because it taps into something very American – being counter-cultural.

Apple has always been counter-cultural. Unix users are of a similar (more technical) breed. Elvis was counter-cultural. Hybrid cars (at first, anyway) were counter-cultural.

In more recent political history, Jimmy Carter and Ross Perot were counter-cultural. People that either come in from the outside, or (much more difficult) who remain relatively untainted while on the inside, can tap into this vein, while those “in the mainstream” cannot. It is probably safe to assume that every culture has its sub-group that feels compelled to swim upstream, and that isn’t always bad if the river is flowing in the wrong direction.

Counter-cultural rebels value purity and focus, and don’t like compromise. They prefer to overthrow existing institutions, usually seeing it as hopeless to change them from within (fanatical terrorists, more ominously, are numbered in this group, marketing destruction as the means toward the end of some form of purification).

Those who see themselves as counter-cultural can be fabulous customers – but don’t step on their toes by diluting the message or by “backsliding”!

There will always be a sizable population of rebels, and they can be fanatical in their attachment to causes. That’s why it’ll be interesting to see how far this swell of support carries Ron Paul, or other such counter-cultural candidates in future years. In the meantime, as marketers, we are faced with an interesting proposition: at what point do we position ourselves and/or our offerings as counter-cultural? Jump into the comments and share what you think have been effective c-c marketing efforts – or those that failed due to miscalculation or insincerity.

(More from the Wall Street Journal on the success of the anti-establishment message in Iowa)