Analysis

Introducing The Dissident Economy

Nick Barron

A few years ago, I joined a panel to discuss the implications of Nike’s “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything” campaign, in which the brand encouraged customers who disagreed with its position to look elsewhere, while locking in the loyalty of shoppers who shared their values.

One of my fellow panellists suggested that the campaign’s success meant that similar ones would soon spring up for every conceivable social justice issue, with rival brands picking opposing sides of an argument to attract different political tribes.

They were half right.

An avalanche of political brand campaigns followed. Traditionally activist brands like Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia were soon joined in the Culture War by everyone from Sainsbury’s to Coutts.

But branding’s marketplace of ideas has only served up one flavour of politics.

Why big brands are progressive

Today, there are few brands ready to espouse conservative ideas, let alone libertarian or reactionary ones. There are no ‘pro-life’ ice cream makers or supermarkets demanding ‘tougher sentencing for criminals’. When Chick-fil-a, a US brand rooted in ‘traditional values’ did try to plant a toe on British soil, they were chased out of town.

A range of incentives prevent established brands from taking non-progressive political positions.

Progressives not only have more spending power than conservatives and a greater propensity to use it to reward brands that share their values, they tend to run the brands themselves.

Any company seeking to challenge progressive values would soon find itself at war with a progressive hegemony and activist corps in the arts, education and the media, as well as among its metropolitan, university-educated employees. Spotify discovered this when it poached Joe Rogan. ESG has also enshrined progressive values in the calculations made by investors too.

Brand activism is taking place against a polarised political backdrop, when the most effective way to rally customers behind your values is often to condemn those you stand against. Picking a side means ostracising the other side.

Just as political leaders around the world have shifted from trying to persuade the unvaccinated to emmerder-ing them and creating a more hostile environment, so too have the diminishing returns of brand activism required brands to take a harder line with dissidents.

For example, when ITV received record complaints about BLM messages in Britain’s Got Talent, it responded by taking out a full page advert in every national newspaper, telling these viewers that they were wrong.

From Culture War to Culture Schism

Most people are indifferent to most of the Culture War fights most of the time, but with each fresh victory for liberal progressivism, the ‘Basket of Deplorables’ gets bigger.

Into the basket have gone everyone from ‘the intellectual dark web’ and ‘trans exclusionary radical feminists’ to ‘conspiracy theorists’, and a host of other untouchables. Didn’t like the He-Man remake killing-off He-Man? You’re the problem. Don’t like super hero comics swapping plot and character for social justice? Then ‘don’t buy my book.

The Culture War is over. Liberal progressives won – and conservatives know it.

But The Culture War’s losers haven’t vanished off the face of the earth, nor recanted. Polarised debates rarely change minds. Dissidents now number in their millions. Their reluctance to say what they really think in public means the size of their ranks are often underestimated. And increasingly, they aren’t ‘buying the book.’

The result is a Culture Schism, where a growing share of people have stopped watching, reading, supporting and buying content and brands that they feel lectured or insulted by – and started building and embracing parallel communities, brands and institutions. As Axios put it in December:

“Conservatives are aggressively building their own apps, phones, cryptocurrencies and publishing houses in an attempt to circumvent what they see as an increasingly liberal internet and media ecosystem.”

This has produced an increasingly large and valuable Dissident Economy.

Introducing the Dissident Economy

Where do people who feel unrepresented by contemporary mainstream Western culture go? The Dissident Economy has three components:

  1. New Things

The right came to dominate US talk radio in the 90s, largely because commentators felt they had nowhere else to go. The same process is happening now.

  • As the dominant digital platforms have become more censorious, alternatives have proliferated, from Gab and Gettr to Odysee and Substack, while right wing content creators have decided that they need to own the means of production and distribution to avoid cancellation.
  • In the US, digital news brand The Daily Wire is now a film studio, snapping up cancelled stars like Gina Carano. Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes launched a subscription video service Uncensored after he was expunged from Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Republicans who felt betrayed by Fox’s move towards the political centre ground decamped to Newsmax and OAN at ferocious speed. Dissident academics launched the University of Austin.
  • In the UK, GB News, Unherd, The Critic and Reaction are among the media start-ups that are avowedly opposed to what they see as a suffocating consensus among their established peers.

Disruptive consumer brands have also rushed in to fill the void.

  • As fashion brands like Calvin Klein and Victoria’s Secret turned their backs on cheesecake marketing, Instagram exploded with start-up brands that were unafraid to sell a hard-bodied ideal. Gymshark sprang from a midlands garage to build an FMCG unicorn.
  • While major banks embraced progressivism to atone for the 2008 crash, irreverent and aggressive fintechs like Revolut hoovered up young customers who were less bothered about company culture than they were about innovative, low-cost services.

Both brands have now outgrown the Dissident Economy and have adopted progressive causes to appeal to a wider group of stakeholders.

2. Old Things

The Dissident Consumer finds solace in culture that pre-dates The Great Awokening and demand for old content is soaring.

3. Non-Anglo Things

The right is developing exotic tastes as it scours the world for content that doesn’t push progressive values, while rejecting a growing number of American franchises. Out goes The Last of Us Part II, in comes Squid Games.

  • American comic book sales are now dwarfed by Manga, even in their home market.
  • Comic-Con cosplayers in 2021 are more likely to be dressed as the heroes of Genshin Impact than of Star Trek. Japan’s Persona video game series now defines the teenage experience for young people in the way that California’s The OC and Sweet Valley High once did.
  • K Pop has replaced British and American boy and girl bands in the affections of Western tweens.

How will brands respond?

Marketing is downstream from culture. Established mainstream brands will need to tap into the Dissident Economy to avoid a loss in market share.

Mostly, they won’t be willing or able to.

Major companies have been demanding their customers pick the progressive side in the Culture War and they will find it almost impossible to court those who have since deserted them, even if they wanted to.

Polarisation has left the reactionary right largely untouchable for big brands:

As a result, we will continue to see big brands snub The Dissident Economy, leaving the way for challengers, as comedian Ryan Long observed:

Big brands will become more like political parties

Eventually, market leaders will get tired of having their lunch eaten by challengers, and the size and spending power of the ranks of disaffected consumers will force some sort of accommodation with the anti-woke.

Just as the brewing giants had to find a way to assimilate the craft brewers who stood in opposition to the globalisation and homogenisation of the beer industry, so too will big business have to learn to straddle parallel communities with virtue counter-signalling.

  • In entertainment, for example, Disney now has two branches of the Star Wars franchise that effectively operate in parallel – the ‘woke’ branch spawned by Kathleen Kennedy and the ‘trad’ arm overseen by Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni. Fans repelled by the former embrace the latter and are kept within the Star Wars tent by industry gossip about a brewing rebellion within Lucasfilm.
  • Gillette never backed away from its calamitous “toxic masculinity” campaign, but it did follow it up with a campaign which lionised prototypically masculine figures in the form of firefighters, to keep The Dissident Consumer happy.

Big brands will stay woke, but find more room for the unwoke, becoming coalitions of factions, in the same way that political parties are – staging the occasional ‘Operation Red Meat‘ for their own customers.

Expect purpose campaigns to pivot towards less polarising areas, such as conservation and animal welfare – and for big brands to be less quick to cave to social media pressure.

The size of the Dissident Economy is why Spotify will stand by Joe Rogan, even in the face of a growing progressive backlash.