The subculture effect: CMOs back in the boardroom

'Marketers must adapt, not by trying to control pop culture'

The rise of subcultures has forever altered the marketing ecosystem

What was once a tightly controlled, top-down system has undergone a complete paradigm shift, now characterised by a bottom-up approach. By causing everything from global sell-out of stock to raising revenues of hundreds of millions of dollars, subcultures have put CMOs back in the boardroom. To understand just how powerful subcultures have become and the impact they will have on the economy moving forward, we need to take a walk down memory lane. As Carl Sagan said, ‘You have to know the past to understand the present.

In the 1990s those working in marketing were in control, operating within a defined formula for success. A select group dictated trends and carefully shaped pop culture by collaborating with a small group of renowned artists, photographers, directors, journalists, celebrities, and athletes. Media placements were controlled by the highest bidder and influence was centralised and meticulously managed, thus controlling supply and demand.

By the mid-2000s bloggers started to move influence away from the hands of the elite few. One of the first industries to be disrupted was fashion and luxury. Suddenly, Anna Wintour found herself sitting front row next to bloggers like BryanBoy and 12-year-old Tavi Gevinson, who were posting straight from the runway. Consumers grew impatient, no longer willing to wait months for Vogue to hit shelves.

Power dynamics and influence shifted, paving the way for fast fashion brands to offer the latest trends at more affordable prices. Photographers began capturing editors and bloggers entering shows and trends came from the streets rather than the runway and e-commerce platforms like Net-a-Porter changed distribution permanently. Social media platforms like Facebook proceeded to disrupt various facets of life.

All of a sudden, news and entertainment were expected to be free, and the Kardashians showed that anyone could achieve immense fame and launch a successful business off the back of it. However, the most transformative disruption came with the democratisation of creativity. Owning a smartphone suddenly meant anyone could be a filmmaker, writer, photographer or content creator and the influencer was born. Instagram was the first visual platform where established athletes, musicians, and celebrities shared space with emerging content influencers and FTSE 500 companies were competing alongside start-ups in advertising auctions based on the quality of their content. 

As algorithms evolved to serve personalised content, mass marketing no longer sufficed

This shift gave a new generation of influencers the power to monetise their art, humour, or unique perspectives, giving rise to the creator economy, currently valued at $250 billion, predicted to nearly double by 2027, according to Goldman Sachs. TikTok further pushed the industry by emphasising discovery and engagement rather than the amount of followers. This, coupled with a younger generation’s preference for authentic content, moved influence into the hands of subcultures.

In 2019 Finnish blogger Jenni Hayrinen’s Uunifetapasta recipe caused a feta cheese shortage in Finland. In January 2021 the same recipe went viral in the US, causing another a sell-out of feta cheese. In February 2023 a viral TikTok fruit roll-up recipe resulted in the confiscation of over 21,000 fruit roll-ups in just one week (by Israeli Customs), as the product had sold out in Israel. The Stanley Quencher, originally targeted at outdoor adventurers, unexpectedly resonated with a new subculture thanks to the efforts of three women — Ashlee LeSueur, Taylor Cannon, and Linley Hutchinson.

They saw the Quencher as the perfect cup for on-the-go mothers and nurses. Despite disinterest from Stanley the trio took matters into their own hands, personally buying out stock; and gifting a Quencher to an influencer who just had a baby, positioning it as the essential accessory for breastfeeding mothers. Their initial stock of 5000 units sold out within five days through their Instagram page, ‘the buy guide.‘ And then in 2020 Stanley collaborated with them, leading to a remarkable surge in revenue for the company — from $73 million in 2019 to $750 million in 2023.

The impact of subcultures goes beyond the marketing department and straight into the boardroom

Marketing, once a tightly controlled, top-down system, has undergone a complete paradigm shift, now characterised by a bottom-up approach.

Marketers must adapt, not by appropriating ideas or trying to control pop culture. They have to collaborate closely with subcultures to understand which micro trends will bubble up to the surface and then use creativity to add a perspective that is relevant to the brand.

Those who succeed will drive immense business impact and become a very strong voice in the boardroom. In case you’re wondering who’s figured it out? Luxury: from collabs like Louis Vuitton x Tyler, the Creator and Rimowa x Supreme to Dior’s Zodiac collection, after all, they were the first ones forced to adapt.

Featured image: Dom Hill / Unsplash

Josefine Billström Raasakka, Founder at The Curious Advisor

Josefine is a marketing & digital transformation advisor. With over 16 years of experience in marketing she spent the first 10 years at Ogilvy and the award-winning Swedish agency INGO as Head of the Strategy where she worked with everything from brand development to packaging design and advertising campaigns. She spent the next 6 years in tech at Meta (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Threads) as a creative strategist. She worked closely with some of the largest brands and agencies in the Nordics on how they could use Metas’ platforms to connect with, and drive value for their customers. She had the opportunity to test, learn and innovate with everything from performance, digital brand and influencer marketing to experimenting with AR, VR, NFTs and AI.In January 2024 she left Meta to start her own company –

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