"To me, punk rock is the freedom to create, freedom to be successful, freedom to not be successful, freedom to be who you are. It’s freedom."
I used to work with this chief creative officer, Michael Knox, who told me in a throwaway line once, 2 am, the morning of a pitch: We should “punk rock the brand”.
I looked at him a little confused. Probably a little despondent too. But mostly confused.
I grew up in the '90s, and I loved the punk-rock scene back then: Green Day, Bad Religion, Pennywise. Yes, I had purple over-gelled hair and piercings in high school, but somehow I didn’t think that was the secret sauce for an insurance brand.
I was wrong.
In this adland of brands romanticising their purpose and creating overly earnest manifestos on diversity and equality, it’s all become, well, unsurprising.
See, punk rock on the surface seems angry and chaotic. But it’s not.
It’s about angst and energy, and those are great things to build into a brand. However, it’s more than that. Punk is about leaving behind the polish of perfection and doing things on your own terms. It’s about standing out and making stuff.
It can be about social awareness and political frustration without the fear of offending people. But it doesn’t have to be.
The thing about punk that I forgot is that it defies definition.
Take the two most influential punk bands in history. They were very different.
The Sex Pistols were a revolution. They defined a culture by changing the way people dressed, walked and played music. Johnny Rotten was a front man who didn’t care if he was loved.
The Ramones were punk and original in their own way. Before the Ramones, there was nothing like the Ramones. More passion than talent, some would say, but 30 years on, we’re still seeing their influence in music, fashion and culture.
Punk is not a style of music really; it’s a questing attitude not to slavishly follow the rules.
And that’s what we’ve been missing. A bit of anarchy.
We’ve all been breaking the same rules. We’re all striving to be different together.
And it’s getting boring.
And then there comes a brand every now and then that goes, fuck it.
Harvey Nichols “Shoplifter” is a great example. The brand launched a loyalty program not by celebrating its biggest spenders but by taking the piss out of its least loyal shoppers.
American outdoor-gear brand REI, with #optoutside, gave Black Friday the finger by closing its doors on the biggest shopping day of the year.
Burger King used real emergency-scene photos of its restaurants burning down as print ads to prove its burgers were flame-grilled. What’s more punk that turning the screw-ups into your icons?
One of the most punk rock moves was putting a bronze statue of a Fearless Girl standing in front of the Wall Street bull. When everyone is talking about data and technology, these guys use a statute to redefine an American icon and make a statement on equality.
It’s the brands that embrace, not ignore, the ugly, the angst and the frustration that create something surprising.
That’s the lesson. Give your brand some freedom. Give it a fight worth fighting, be surprising. Be imperfect. Get dirty. Be a bit more punk.
Danish Chan is national planning director at Grey Australia.