The School of Communication Arts 2.0 is a hidden home for creative advertising students. You’ll find it on the top floor of a church in Brixton where a nightclub used to be. Take traditional education, flip it on its head and you have this playground for fledgeling creatives nestled in the depths of South London. The school is supported by hundreds of agencies, some of which fund scholarships. Out of 36 students, 11 have help with fees.
Although most people know what Supreme is (that skateboarding brand with the red logo, yeah?), not many people understand who they are, their community, or what they stand for. As a brand that, arguably, has more hype around its product than even Apple or Tesla, it’s a brand worth knowing about, especially for people interested in branding and advertising. So I’ve tried my hardest to condense what Supreme is, its success in fueling the hype machine, and how that’s valuable to marketing. I tried to make it shorter, but my inner fanboy came out, so it’s a long read. Buckle in.
The main thing you need to understand is that Supreme is really, really exclusive – not through price, but through the availability of stock. Supreme massively under stocks its product and never re-stocks anything, period. When it’s gone from the store, it’s gone. James Jebbia, the founder of Supreme, once said in an interview, “if we can sell 500 t-shirts, we sell 300.”
Now you’ve got 200 kids who didn’t get the t-shirt, that now wanted it more than ever. We want what we cannot have. These kids now have a choice; go to the re-sell market, buy it at an extortionate markup, or go without. You can be sure as hell next time they get the chance to purchase anything, they will, because if you decide later you want it, it’s too late.
The target market they want is tailored at point of sale.
Following on from supply, Supreme has very few stores. Its stores often play pretty obscene music, and have pretty aggressive staff members that don’t allow you to touch the very few clothes they have on display. Whether intentional or not, it’s helped in keeping out the ‘wrong’ crowd (originally it was older people outside of the community, although they seem to make up a large part of the queue today, take a look at the Google reviews for the store if you get a chance, they’re hilarious) and alienate those who feel intimidated.
The target market they want is tailored at point of sale. This also makes those who love and buy the product feel more committed to the brand, as well as making them feel part of a larger collective.
The store in Soho was, until two years ago, the only store in Europe. If you’ve ever been in Soho on a Thursday and wondered why huge swaths of kids were lining up around Peter Street, it’s a Supreme drop. Due to such high demands and complaints from neighbours, (and even rioting, look at the foamposite drop in NYC a few years back) a ticketing system, which is randomly allocated at a random location in London on Monday (yes, three days before) is the only way to gain access to the store. Believe me, if you get a chance to go inside, it doesn’t matter if the store has the stock you want, you’ll buy anything because you’ve already invested so much time into queuing. If you luck out, you have to go online, along with the rest of Europe. Most big fans of the brand even use Google plug-ins (called bots) to autofill data so that checkout time is down to seconds and the chances of ‘copping’ (purchasing) are increased.
And with low supply, comes high demand. Supreme have a huge resale market. Through Supreme Talk or the Basement on Facebook, Depop, or a host of other big private sellers (check out Sean Wotherspoon if you want to see what a fully-fledged reselling business looks like) product that is bought online or in-store is sold to online collectors who didn’t manage to get the products. And with such high markups (Louis Vuitton x Supreme box logo t-shirts for £1.5k, box logo hoodies for £700, even an infamous Supreme brick for supposedly hundreds of pounds), plenty of kids from around 14 upwards fund their lifestyles through reselling product or proxing (queuing up on someone else’s behalf for a healthy cut).
There is a black market for clothing, with thousands of pounds being exchanged in single deals. Kids scam each other frequently for clothes and shoes, the hype somewhat reminiscent of the Air Jordan murders. What this whole ecosystem has allowed, is the gamification of retail - it’s a maze to find out how to get into buying it, and a lucky dip if you get the chance to. With Supreme, there’s a big hunter/gatherer journey, and so the reward feels a lot higher.
But what’s more exciting, or daunting, for young creatives, is that they don’t directly advertise.
At a time, their product was really fresh; when most skate companies were tailoring a product to kids, Supreme targeted their product at the older skater, the ones who would prefer to invest in good quality garments at a higher price point. So when it came to promoting the product, Supreme naturally use their skaters, as well as the medium of skate edits to promote their brand. This also allowed them to keep an ‘if you know, you know’ community ethos against outsiders. The edits were the only branded ‘advertisements’ they released, no matter how large they grew. They were never in your face- they were honest, and stuck to their roots.
Besides kids emblazoned with its logos from head to toe, the queue itself is a great piece of marketing. Looking at the laws of a crowd, we know if everyone else wants something, we should probably want it as well. We all know the best clubs are the ones with huge lines, even if they’re half-empty inside. This resonates further into the re-sell market. Because others are willing to pay much greater prices for a product that’s sold out, that too is an indicator it’s really desired by others.
The most exciting thing about their content, as well as the product they produce, it’s rarely made for direct markup or profit. They’ll sell a limited run of t-shirts, paying tens of thousands to Terry Richardson, as well as the ‘face’ of the brand that year, and not sell these for any more units than they’d usually sell per item. Supreme know these items become not only desirable and add to the hype machine, but they add huge brand value, regardless of profits. It also allows them to keep the clientele they want and be truly different in their market. As Kaws, the graffiti writer once said, ‘brands are often scared to make product… if it doesn’t directly correlate to profit’. Supreme is not scared.
But the community spirit around the brand, due to Supreme’s nurturing these groups through the incessant hype, is what makes the brand work. They know that community is what drives their culture. Rarely do they facilitate this through their own social media, but instead through ‘influencers’. Rarely will they engage with the group directly. They will instead give a product to very select celebrities in line with their brand values, as well as ‘friends and family’ of the brand, who are then eager to share their ‘status’ with the world by photographing and promoting themselves online.
You buy enough of the right types of product, and fully immerse yourself in their culture, then you can go up ‘levels’.
Other kids, who also feel part of the community by just owning the clothes, also share their outfits and Supreme items through ‘fitpics’ (often called flexing), building a culture around owning, buying, selling and trading. And if you own, buy, sell or trade enough, you can be ‘promoted’ to an admin on a Facebook group (this rarely happens anymore, and I know it all sounds rather obscene, but this is Supreme) and be within a closer, tight-knit community of die-hard fans, and more importantly, a friendship group. Social media followers also indicate your societal status within the culture. Again, this is a form of gamification – you buy enough of the right types of product, and fully immerse yourself in their culture, then you can go up ‘levels’.
The list of little intricate behavioural systems Supreme uses, intentionally or unintentionally, goes on. But what’s important is that Supreme, out of something that seems almost illogical to most brands (underselling product) has morphed their clothes into almost trading stock. They stuck to their roots, were genuinely tailored to an audience, building brand loyalty, unlike any other company.
We love what we cannot have. And we love playing games. We can never have Supreme, even if we own it. We will always strive to be as good as what Supreme represents – the ultimate form of individuality from the masses, camaraderie in your friends, and confidence.