What’s the Big Deal about Hype Brands? How Scarcity and Consumer Subculture drive Success


Hype and Obsession. Serpentine queues with hundreds of consumers lining up in front of stores. Scores of consumers camping overnight to get the newly released product first. No, it isn’t for a new phone. Welcome to the world of Hype Brands. Case in point: the legendary streetwear brand Supreme. When Supreme opened its 10th store worldwide and only its second in Europe, in the ultimate fashion capital of the world, Paris, on March 10, 2016, the hundreds waiting in line wanted to be among the first to get their hands on the new apparel, knowing that most of these items would be sold out almost immediately. As consumers eagerly wait for Supreme to open its 12th store in San Francisco this year, let’s take a look at what makes a Hype Brand successful.  What is the underlying business model? What are some lessons for branding?

So What? 

Humble Beginnings, Crazy Growth. Supreme started out as any other streetwear brand with their main focus on providing apparel for skaters. During the 90’s the brand was therefore only known within the skating community, with affordable prices. Supreme’s fame and popularity skyrocketed in 2012. Cut to today, Supreme can even sell an ordinary brick with their famed logo and charge $100 for it. Reselling that brick on eBay would probably get you more than $1000. Supreme successfully created a cult brand and a formidable subculture. A few months ago Hasan Minhaj took a closer look at the iconic streetwear brand and the business model of this iconic Hype Brand.

photo by alec ohlaker on unsplash2
Image Courtesy Alec Ohlaker at Unsplash

The Rules of Supply and Demand. It’s all about scarcity. Limited production creates limited availability and the perception of rarity. This perception of rarity makes the heart of a hype brand fetishist skip a beat. If a hype brand could sell a 1000 units of a certain product, they would only produce around 400. This manufacturing of scarcity is at the core of a hype brand’s success. Unlike Nike and Adidas, who constantly restock their existing product lines, Supreme creates limited-edition versions of every product. Hermès Birkin is famous for its long waiting list for luxury bags and is considered an industry legend in the luxury fashion segment. Of course they could easily meet their consumer demand. But why should they? Take a look at the Supreme x Rimowa collaboration. Their suitcase sold out in 16 seconds at a retail price of 1,800$. The resale value of this product? More than twice as high. That’s world of the “drop” – a disruption of the traditional supply-and-demand model.

photo by david lezcano on unsplash
Image Courtesy David Lezcano at Unsplash

A Consumer Subculture of Devotees. Eager consumers of  hype brands go by the monicker, “hypebeasts”. These passionate, devoted consumers represent a potent subculture built around hype brands and take their identification with their hype brands seriously. The culture is marked by exclusivity, social media posts of acquiring and wearing these prized items dropped by hype brands, and driving envy among consumers. This BBC feature delves into the mind of a hypebeast and features, among others, Kyle Maiorano, a 20-year-old college student from New York. Maiorano’s Instagram posts solely consist of his prized acquisitions of hype brand sneakers and other street wear items. Hype beasts like Maiorano are steadfastly invested in their social image, and the hype brand becomes an integral part of their social identity. The hype brand’s story becomes their own story, and they deeply value this connection. 

Reselling Culture. Many entrepreneurial teens are reselling hype brands and making serious money. Supreme products represent one of the most secure investments for a reseller, ensuring handsome profits. The fact that fans are willing-to-pay exorbitant prices boosts the popularity of hype brands and at the same time creates lucrative markets of resellers. Some hypebeasts become well-known resellers, solidifying their own brand within the subculture, and making a living off hype brands. It’s the ultimate match – a hype brand that feeds off the subculture created by hypebeasts, and the hypebeast who amplifies the voice of a hype brand by reselling the brand and its culture.

Now What?

What do hype brands teach us? How do they build formidable brand equity and what’s the secret to maintaining hype and remaining successful?

Hype Brands Seek to Remain Interesting. Joerg Koch, editor of the bi-annual contemporary culture magazine “032c” that covers art, fashion, and politics. says that the traditional way of thinking about fashion and retail is history. It’s all about whether something is interesting or not. Don’t be boring, be interesting. Decades ago fashion was all about playing it safe. Extravagance and colorful collections were merely seen in fashion shows. This has fundamentally changed. When consumers want to share something Instagrammable, they look for products, places and experiences that are interesting. Be it in concept, style, or even choice of product category to invest it, “is it interesting or not?” is the question that brands ask themselves everyday. If hype brands have taught something about being interesting, it’s that a simple product category can become incredibly interesting. Sneakers, as a product category, became interesting in the world of fashion retail, not too long ago. The famous department store Harrods, in London, reports that above 50% of it’s entire men’s footwear business is made up of sneakers. Luxury brands like Dior, Gucci and Louis Vuitton have all launched their versions of sneakers which gave their business a boost.

Image Courtesy Brunel Johnson at Unsplash


Hype Brands Collaborate. Brand collaborations provide novelty and anticipation among hypebeasts. Hyped streetwear brands find a parallel in the world of exclusive, high-end luxury fashion, and a collaboration of these two worlds can create strong ripples in both. Supreme collaborated with Louis Vuitton to create a collection that debuted at the 2017 Louis Vuitton’s men’s fashion show in Paris. The novelty of this collaboration created a frenzy and a collection that sold out almost instantly. Supreme’s other collaborations include the Japanese clothing brand undercover, outdoor specialist The North Face and luggage maker Rimowa. These collaborations keep fans guessing and build hype for both brand. These lucrative collaborations don’t need to wait for the next fashion season to make their debut. With new limited collections dropping every few weeks, gone are the days of traditional fashion calendars, and debuts during timed, season launches.

Hype Brands are Rooted in Authenticity. “A brand can be seen as a self-extension of ourselves – the way you want the world to see you or what you want the world to believe you are”, says Jonathan Gabay, author of Brand Psychology: Consumer Perceptions, Corporate Reputations. Key to maintaining hype is authenticity. Most Supreme buyers belong to Generation Z, which wants to look unique and exclusive. Authentic brands serve them successfully, and have the potential to generate hype. They allow their consumers and devoted fans to integrate that authenticity into their own self-image.

Though it’s easy (and fashionable for every brand expert) to say that a brand should be authentic in order to be successful, the question of what is authentic and what is not remains a mystery for most brand managers. So what exactly is authenticity? Here are a couple of quotes that make authenticity seem simple: Michael Jordan famously said,  “Authenticity is being true to who you are.” Oscar Wilde, over a century ago quipped, “Be yourself, everyone else is taken.”

Sources: Harvard Business Review, Apetogentleman, BBC, Hypebeast, The Guardian, Harper’s Bazaar Singapore, Vice, Criteo, HighsNobiety Stockx, The Financial Times, The Cut